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The Food Detective: Zoe Perrett wonders about watercress

The Food Detective: Zoe Perrett wonders about watercress
Deemed the 'original superfood', it's a veritable powerhouse of 15 vitamins and minerals. Its origins lie in Ancient Greece, and here in the UK, the Victorians considered it a blood cleanser. It's also reputedly great for hangovers- try it in a 'hair of the dog' Bloody Mary!
The mere fact that the railway's called the Watercress Line is a tip off to the fact Hampshire has long been the county associated with the leafy green stuff. Indeed, the links stretch back to 1865 when the new railway meant fresh watercress could be transported from tiny, picturesque Alresford to Covent Garden market within hours. Continuing to carry 120,000 passengers annually, the Watercress Line is still a big part of the town's attraction- especially during the annual May Watercress Festival.

In the UK we're quick to enthuse over foreign foodie festivals- such as Italy's lemon festival or France's homage to Choucroute- but the fact is, we have our own right here and they're thriving. This annual paean to all things watercress is a slightly eccentric, quintessentially British experience. In past years I've had my palate shocked by watercress trifle, slurped watercress ice cream in a Parmesan cone, and savoured bitter chocolate watercress truffles- so I had justifiably high hopes for this year.

A few words on watercress for the uninitiated- deemed the 'original superfood', it's a veritable powerhouse of 15 vitamins and minerals. The origins lie in Ancient Greece, and here in the UK, the Victorians considered it a blood cleanser. It's also reputedly great for hangovers- try it in a 'hair of the dog' Bloody Mary! With more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk and more iron than spinach, it certainly can't do any harm. Surprisingly, the first commercial British cultivation was in Kent- but nowadays it's Hampshire that springs to mind whenever watercress is mentioned, due in no small part to the county's initial beds belonging to Eliza James in the early 20th century- a woman dubbed 'The Watercress Queen'.

Back to the present day- I'm making my annual pilgrimage and the weather's ominous. There's torrential rain on the M3, but by the time we hit Alresford the sun's peeping out. I head straight for Cresson Creative's expansive stall, where Jennifer Laing gives me the inside scoop. This lady's the pioneer when it comes to Alresford's watercress- opening Cafe Cresson in 1995 after discovering the town's links to the crop, with watercress as the star of the menu.

Today she offers products like watercress pasties, pestos, and delicious pates. The bright-green crepes are a great hot lunch option at the festival- which this year marks the launch of Jennifer's vegetarian watercress sausages. She tells me the cheese and watercress scones are her best-seller- and that Cresson were the first to make that ice-cream I'd enjoyed, pairing sweet pesto with a custard base. Her personal favourite preparation is watercress rolls- one of those sausages encased in tasty pastry, and she says there's nothing better than seeing people enjoying the very first crop from her newly-acquired watercress bed out at Stoke Valley.

Jennifer has to rush off to prepare for her demo- and I want a front-row seat. She's landed upon 'Persian Ways With Watercress', opining that 'anything that can be done with spinach, can be done with watercress'. If these recipes are anything to go by, that's a truism- the Ash-e Balaghoti (watercress and split pea soup) and Boorani-ye Balaghoti (raita-style dish) are both delicious. I devour more than my fair share with pieces of Cresson's watercress and coriander flatbread whilst learning even more- not least to 'store watercress leaf-side down in iced water, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise!'

Hungry for more, I drift round the farmers' market, encountering watercress in Silk's Larders' bread, Pollen Organic's hummus and deliciously tart watercress and lemon pesto, Hammer Trout Fishery's trout and watercress pate, and in sweet carrot cakes and muffins amongst Pure Delight's wares. An intensely verdant shot of soup with a tiny watercress mousse-filled tart sees me exceed daily vitamin C intake...And then the heavens open once again.

Further demos come courtesy of Matthew Gardener of the White Horse, Romsey, and Lainston House Hotel's Andy MacKenzie and Mark Tilling. Sadly we miss the super-healthy Watercress Eating Championships, cook-off and farm tours due to the inclement weather... but I'll be back next year, riding in on the historic Watercress Line.

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3 June 2009
By: Zoe Perrett
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